New Airport Project Divides Environmental Groups

A salt marsh on the edge of West Bay in Florida. i i

A salt marsh on the edge of West Bay is part of the 40 miles of creeks and 33 miles of unprotected shoreline that would be placed in a nature preserve as part of the deal to build a new airport in Florida's panhandle. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Allen, NPR
A salt marsh on the edge of West Bay in Florida.

A salt marsh on the edge of West Bay is part of the 40 miles of creeks and 33 miles of unprotected shoreline that would be placed in a nature preserve as part of the deal to build a new airport in Florida's panhandle.

Greg Allen, NPR

Airline travel has bounced back in a big way since the industry's downturn after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Seventeen million more people flew in the first eight months of this year than in the same period in 2006.

But airport construction has not kept up with the passenger increase. Next month, in Panama City, Fla., construction is scheduled to begin on the nation's first new airport in nearly a decade.

And it's a facility that provides a case study into why it's so hard to build a new airport.

'Basically a Land Deal'

Panama City's current airport certainly isn't at the breaking point. The roughly two dozen flights that come and go here each day don't overtax the current facility.

The problem is the airport's runway: It is among the shorter runways in the country, and the Federal Aviation Administration wants longer runways for safety reasons.

Ten years ago, plans to extend the current airport's runways ran into opposition from environmental groups because of its impact on St. Andrew Bay. Panama City's airport authority then turned to the biggest landowner in the area, the St. Joe Company.

St. Joe is a former paper company that's developing much of its land. The company agreed to donate 4,000 acres in the middle of one of its pine forests for a new airport.

Airport chief Randy Curtis said the new airport will do more than just expand the runways. He said he believes it will be a catalyst for the local economy.

"We definitely see the service expanding," Curtis said. "This is a very rapidly growing area."

With a price tag of at least $330 million, the airport project has generated opposition from some local residents, like Don Hodges.

Hodges said he has seen no evidence that the new airport will do anything to increase airline service. He said the project is "basically a land deal" that will spur development in an area that's currently just pineland.

Hodges is not alone. A nonbinding referendum conducted three years ago found a majority of residents who voted didn't support the new airport's construction.

While some in Panama City raised questions about the proposed airport, an environmental group took action.

The Natural Resources Defense Council argues that the new airport will destroy wetlands and hurt water quality in the Bay. The NRDC filed a lawsuit challenging the FAA's approval of the new airport.

'Ecologically, a Fantastic Thing'

That action divided environmental groups in Florida. Some local groups support the NRDC's efforts to block the airport, but others — notably, the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy — are lined up on the other side in support of the new facility.

As part of the airport deal, the St. Joe Company has done something unusual for a developer: It has agreed to preserve more than 40,000 acres of pine forests and wetlands surrounding the western part of St. Andrew Bay.

Ed Kepner, a field biologist, calls the plan for the West Bay preserve "ecologically, a fantastic thing." Kepner has spent much of his career documenting crayfish, dragonflies and the other plants and animals that he says make St. Andrew Bay the most diverse ecosystem in North America.

Panama City's airport authority hopes to have its financing in place and details worked out so it can begin construction of the new airport by the middle of December.

Hodges still holds out hope that a federal judge in New York who's hearing the FAA challenge will step in.

But, he concedes, time appears to be running out.

"Probably starting construction is a tipping point," Hodges said.

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